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Steve Hillebrand
Embracing Culture in a Mutual Desert
Juliette Fernandez

The cholla cactus buds rested delicately on top of a fresh, green salad placed in front of each of us. We knew this cactus well. Cholla are a shrubby cactus with cylindrical stems that spread across the refuge providing habitat for cactus wrens and adding color to the burnt desert sand. To the Tohono O’Odham tribe, they were Ciolum, a traditional communally-harvested food rich in culture and ancestral practice. Together we ate, learning about the tribe’s history, culture, language and land ethic. It was a day of respect - understanding and experiencing our well-known desert in a completely new way. Understanding the local tribe was the first step to establishing a new relationship of mutual learning and positive relations for the benefit of a shared land, and we were so glad we had reached out.


Robb Hannawacker

Welcome to our Desert

The Tohono O’Odham Nation stretches parallel to the refuge’s west side and beyond its northern boundary. Historically, the refuge land was ancestral tribal lands and the pot shards scattered densely across the landscape are proof. There had never been a great deal of contact between the tribe and refuge staff so we requested a visit to the Tohono O’Odham Nation to explore their museum and learn about the landscape from a whole new angle. They welcomed the opportunity and shared with us a traditional meal and a story of the desert we had never before heard.


Not in our Science Books

“That mountain,” he pointed, “Is a woman weaving a basket, and we believe that the day she completes the basket is the day the world will end.” We all listened intently as the mountains and wildlife we saw everyday transformed before our eyes into stories reflecting the deep cultural and religious meaning of a sacred land. For generations, the tribe had lived in and off the land. They described the properties and uses of plants, animals, and environmental trends that had been part of their oral and visual history for generations but have never been in our science books, at least not in the same words. They then took us to a cave, showing us where their storytelling had begun. Richly scribed on the wall were drawings of the past traditions, which are still practiced today. 


The Coyote Trickster

At the end of the trip we all took a photograph together. It was the beginning of a new conversation, a new relationship and a productive partnership. To the tribe, the environment isn’t cloaked in agency missions and mandates. It is the source of their heritage. Although we have unique needs, concerns and interests, we both have a respect for the land. Whether a coyote is a Canis latrans or a story-told “trickster, it is a pillar of our mutual desert.


Time and Understanding

Since that day, we have invited members of the tribe to come to the refuge to learn about us. We continue to have our separate missions for the land but together we have raised our voices for its protection when outside development has threatened it. The tribe visits the refuge several times a year under a Special Use Permit to collect yucca leaves and mesquite wood for religious ceremonies and we are happy to see each other when they visit.  Taking time to learn about our neighbors and understand their perspective of the land is an important step for us. There is so much to share and learn that will only make us better stewards and representatives of our resources if we embrace the desert in all of its forms. 


Juliette Fernandez's picture
About the Author
Juliette Fernandez
Juliette is the Refuge Supervisor for Arizona and New Mexico. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in Wildlife Science and a minor in Creative Writing. She began her career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the biologist at Imperial National Wildlife Refuge before entering management as the Assistant Manager at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. In her current position in the Southwest Regional Office, Juliette continues to support positive change in conservation by fostering sound, useful science; building employee relations and developing meaningful investment in the Service's vision with others.